Category: travel

A Visit to the Holy Land and Egypt

A Mediterranean Cruise in 1910, Part 2

When my great-great-aunt and her husband visited the Holy Land in 1910, she regretted that they arrived in Jerusalem by train. This modern mode of travel seemed out of place in the ancient city. “We should have come by donkey or camel,” she wrote in a published account of their trip, Reminiscences of a Cruise in the Mediterranean and a Visit to the Holy Land and Egypt by Mrs. W. Lennox Mills.

Katharine Sophia Mills (1850-1938) and her husband, Rev. William Lennox Mills, who was the Anglican Bishop of Ontario, were on a four-month cruise from New York to ports around the Mediterranean, including the Holy Land and Egypt. They travelled by sea, by rail, motorcar, horse-drawn carriage, as well as by horse, donkey, and camel. Katharine seemed to take it all in stride, including stormy seas and deeply rutted roads.

Getting around the way people did in the past, watching them use primitive farming techniques and visiting ancient places sparked her imagination. She especially wanted to see the places that had been central to the Bible stories with which she was so familiar.

One day, she wrote, they drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. “It did not require a very vivid imagination to picture many of the scenes in the Bible story which took place here. How clearly one could see Ruth gleaning in the harvest field (the spot was pointed out to us) and Boaz coming among the reapers. What a scene of pastoral life and love in these fields, thick with corn and wheat! …. But transcending all other associations are those connected with the marvellous event which here took place, the birth of the world’s Redeemer, who is Christ the Lord.”

Later, Katharine and her husband visited the peaceful, walled garden at Gethsemane, and other locations associated with Christ’s crucifixion, and being in these places reminded her of the events that had happened there some 1900 years earlier.

She sometimes questioned whether some of the places their guide pointed out were really the locations of these events. In Nazareth, for example, they walked around the ruins of Joseph’s workshop, “said to be genuine. One cannot be quite sure, of course, that the very spot pointed out is the real one, but amidst all the changes and the desolation of the centuries, the distinguishing characteristics yet remain. One great memory lingers, and every spot seems hallowed ground.”

Another day, her skepticism was justified. “We passed the ‘Inn of the Good Samaritan’ and a little further along the road, the spot was shown us where the man fell among thieves. Those who are responsible for the locating of places mentioned in Scripture as the spots where certain events took place seem in this case either to have forgotten or ignored the fact the episode of the Good Samaritan was a parable.”

Like many others of her generation, Katharine grew up hearing stories from the Bible. Her father, Montreal landowner and notary Stanley Clark Bagg (1820-1873), was a deeply religious man and no doubt instilled his Christian beliefs in his five children. He was also interested in history, archaeology, coins and antiquities, and it appears that Katharine, his eldest daughter, shared these interests.

She especially enjoyed visiting the pyramids of Egypt and the Cairo’s Boulak Museum, now known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. She wrote, “Cairo is simply fascinating: the new part of the city is very handsome, reminding one rather of Paris, with its wide streets and attractive shops, and there is a wonderful glamour and air of enchantment about it. The old Cairo is dirty, but most interesting.”

One of the highlights of their visit was watching the “gorgeous spectacle that was the return to Cairo of the pilgrimage from Mecca with the Holy Carpet, as Sheikhs, Bedouins and Arab riders, carrying flags and banners, and splendid camels, richly caparisoned, moved along with stately tread.”

For the most part, Katharine focused on her experiences as a tourist, and she did not mention politics often, although she did note there were tensions in Egypt. At that time, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire and was occupied by British forces. She commented that the University of Mohammedanism was “the centre of dissatisfaction with British rule, and the seat of probable revolt.” In fact, although Egypt became independent in 1922, British troops did not entirely withdraw until 1956.  
While many North Americans visit this part of the world today, in 1910, Katharine’s trip would have only been possible for a privileged few. Also, two world wars, political upheaval in the Middle East and technological advances have changed this region forever, making her reminiscences all the more interesting.  

See also:

A Mediterranean Cruise in 1910, Writing Up the Ancestors, Oct. 30, 2019 

Notes and sources

Reminiscences of a Cruise in the Mediterranean and a Visit to the Holy Land and Egypt by Mrs. W. Lennox Mills can be found in several Canadian university libraries, and online.

A Mediterranean Cruise in 1910

In 1910, my mother’s great-aunt Katharine Sophia (Bagg) Mills (1850-1938) and her husband, Reverend William Lennox Mills, the Anglican Bishop of Ontario, visited Europe and the Holy Land. They had been to Europe before, but this was a long awaited trip to visit the places they had read about in the Bible. After returning home to Kingston, Katharine published an account of her trip, Reminiscences of a Cruise in the Mediterranean and a Visit to the Holy Land and Egyptby Mrs. W. Lennox Mills.

This trip took place 110 years ago, when travel was slower and there was greater diversity in the dress and customs of different countries than there is today, nevertheless, their adventures would probably sound quite familiar to cruise passengers of today. Katharine left out the names of her fellow travellers and details of many personal incidents (though I wish she hadn’t), but she did share her impressions of the sights they saw.

The couple set sail from New York on January 20, 1910 aboard the S.S. Arabic, making an eight-day crossing of the Atlantic to the Portuguese island of Madeira. Katharine described her first view of the island: “Mountains, rising one above another, formed a fine background, and there were three high hills, shaped just like bee-hives with rounded domes, quite unique in appearance. The colouring of the picture was superb: blue sea, blue sky, with downy white clouds, green hills, purple shadows, red and grey rocks, white houses with red roofs, and a picturesque old grey fort, crowning the summit of one of the hills.”

Later in the day, after wandering around the town of Funchal, they joined a small group of fellow visitors and hired a motor car. “We dashed through some neighbouring villages and brought the inhabitants rushing to their doors; some in admiration of our rapid flight, and others looking greatly amazed and alarmed.” She noted the clothes worn by the locals: the men in cone-shaped knitted caps, the women with gaily coloured kerchiefs on their heads. The following day, they took a funicular railway to the top of a nearby mountain. “Then came a most exciting experience in descending from the lofty height. We got into a sort of basket carriage on runners, guided by two men holding ropes, and rushed down, with incredible swiftness, over the hard cobble stones.”

After leaving Madeira, they visited Cadiz and took a special train to Seville, returning the following day to the S.S. Arabic.

Their next stops included Gibraltar, Algiers, Malta and Athens. Katharine described a thrilling moment in Athens: “We climbed by very steep and natural steps in the solid rock, to the top of the Areopagus and ‘stood on Mars Hill,’ where the great Apostle St. Paul also stood in 54 A.D., and preached to the ‘Men of Athens,’ declaring unto them the ‘unknown God.’”

They steamed on through the Straights of the Dardanelles to Constantinople (now Istanbul.) “Seen from the ship, the great City of Constantine is bewilderingly beautiful, with its white palaces, many domes and graceful minarets,” she wrote, but, as they crossed a bridge, she described seeing “a motley crowd” of Arabs in hooded robes, Jews with long beards and Turks wearing loose trousers and red fez caps, as well as donkeys with heavily laden baskets and men carrying large boxes of fruit and vegetables on their backs.

The next port of call was Smyrna where, Katharine noted, Christianity laid down deep roots at an early time. From there, they travelled to Ephesus, a great ancient city that was home for a time to both St. John and St. Paul.

They decided to go to see the ruins of the Agora, the Theatre and the Library, which were four miles away and, since there were no carriage roads, they had to ride. The Bishop, as Katharine referred to her husband, was given a white horse, which proved to be “quite a terror,” although William eventually managed to control his mount. Katharine, who had probably learned to ride as a child, was on a donkey. “He seemed to take complete command of the situation, and I had no alternative but to let him have his own way.… Sometimes we would go down an almost perpendicular hill … at other times we would push our way through brier and thorn, or sink for several inches in muddy fields.” She claimed she was not the least bit nervous.

In Lebanon, they were joined by their dragoman, or guide, a Syrian who spoke English well and had been educated at a Quaker school near “Beyrout.” They took a train through the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon and arrived in Damascus, where they stayed at the clean and comfortable Victoria Hotel. (There always seemed to be an English-run hotel in these cities.)

In Damascus, they visited a mosque that housed a sarcophagus containing what was said to be the head of St. John the Baptist, and they saw the tomb of Saladin, who fought the Crusaders. The following day, they travelled by train to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, their first stop in the Holy Land.


Reminiscences of a Cruise in the Mediterranean and a Visit to the Holy Land and Egypt by Mrs. W. Lennox Mills can be found in several Canadian university libraries, and online.

According the Bagg family Bible, which is in the archives of the McCord Museum, Montreal, Katharine Sophia Bagg was born July 4, 1850 at Fairmount Villa, Montreal. The eldest daughter of Catharine Mitcheson and Stanley Clark Bagg, she grew up with her older brother and three younger sisters. On Oct. 12, 1886, she married Canon William Lennox Mills at Christ Church, Montreal. Their only child, Arthur Lennox Stanley Mills, was born in Montreal on June 27, 1890. At one time rector of Anglican Trinity Memorial Chapel in Montreal, William was Bishop of Ontario from 1901 until his death in 1917, and the couple lived in Kingston for many years. Katharine died at her apartment in Montreal on January 31, 1938.

Shirley C. Spragge, “MILLS, WILLIAM LENNOX,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003– (accessed October 16,  2019),